On Punk


Right before high school, I fell in love with the Ramones. From then on, I was seen as punk. It was almost like I became my school’s designated punk kid. But was I really punk, though? I didn’t dress the punk way. No spiked hair or leather jacket or safety pins. To my friends, I was punk because I was “other”. Because my music taste didn’t match theirs. 

I have fun in college because I can study punk academically. I can search for deeper meanings and listen to what I enjoy with a purpose. In college, I am punk because I can explain why punk was (and is) a reaction and why it created a space free from the consumerism, repetition, and cultural homogeneity of capitalism. You know what I mean. 

Right now, I am taking a class called “DC in the History of Punk Rock” through the music department. It’s a cool course. I just tell people it’s named “DC Punk History” because the name is too long. When I tell most people, they don’t usually know what I’m talking about. Anyway, the class has got me thinking. One of my bad tendencies is comparing myself to others, particularly to those people in the same spaces as me. DC Punk History is an environment where I do it a lot. “Who here is the most punk?” I sit in class and wonder. Of course, it’s me. Why? you may ask. Because I can name the most Ramones songs off the top of my head. Nah, just kidding. Of course I’m not the most punk. There are lots of cool-seeming people in the class. It’s a silly question to consider.

But, more seriously, this discussion leads me to bigger questions about punk. Ever since I developed my own music taste, I’ve been labelled as the punk guy by the outside world. I am curious about what that label means. 

I would like to offer my definition of punk to the world. In a very punk way, I’ll begin by defining what punk is not. To me, punk is not defined by a style of music. Tempos, tones, chords, instruments don’t define it. The extensive variety of sound under the punk label upholds this. Listen to Bad Brains then listen to Beat Happening; both punk bands but extremely different music. 

On the first day of the DC Punk class, someone said they thought that punk is an attitude. My apologies to that student, but I disagree. Attitudes are temporary; they’re like moods, they come and go. An attitude you can wear out to the show but take it off once you’re home. Punk isn’t like that. Sorry, mom, it’s not a phase for me. I especially disagree with the punk as attitude comment because the “punk attitude” is generally regarded as the Sex Pistols-pioneered nihilist, hate the world, whiney baby outlook. To some onlookers, punk is synonymous with not giving a f*ck, not caring. But punk bands are so much more than that. Listen to Fugazi, listen to the Minutemen, listen to Gang of Four. These are bands that challenge us, that push back against our perceptions. They care deeply about the world and want to make it a better place, and you can hear it in the music. 

The question remains of “what is punk?” I’ll try my best to answer it. To me, punk is a mode of operation. Punk is about how you function, how you move through the world. A combination of actions, intentions, and consciousness make up this operating mode. The clothes, the music, the attitude, the posturing/performance… they all don’t really matter in determining something’s punkness. Instead, the reasons and intentions guiding your choices matter more.

The words independent/indie/Do-It-Yourself (DIY) are tossed around a lot in my circle. I think there’s a lot of value in them. That’s because the punk mode of operation is rooted in doing things independently. To me that’s what it’s all about. Doing things on your own. 

Notably, the history of DC punk is marked by Dischord Records and the label’s aggressive independence. I do think it’s an awesome example of what punk is. I also think that independent modes of operation can happen at all levels. Dischord is a good example for an institution on a larger level. I am more focused on the individual and how their seemingly small, everyday choices can fall within this punk mode of operation. My sister is a super talented illustrator. One year for my birthday, she gifted me a drawing of a man walking. There’s a quotation bubble coming from his mouth. He says, “We make the road by walking.” I love the quote. It’s stuck with me ever since I saw it. Only now am I realizing how punk that quote is. I find that it sums up the punk mode of operation perfectly. In the world there are laid out paths, you can choose to take one of those many paths. You can also go somewhere new and forge your own path. Doing that, to me, is what punk is about.

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